November 1997 — Volume 3, Number 1
Focus on Grammar: A Basic Course for Reference and Practice
Irene E. Schoenberg (1994)
White Plains, NY: Longman Addison-Wesley Publishing Co.
Pp. xvi + 530
ISBN 0-201-65681-7 (paper)
Focus on Grammar: An Intermediate Course for Reference and Practice
Marjorie Fuchs and Miriam Westheimer, with Margaret Bonner (1994)
Pp. xii + 403
ISBN 0-201-65685-X (paper)
Focus on Grammar: A High-Intermediate Course for Reference and Practice
Marjorie Fuchs and Margaret Bonner (1995)
Pp. xv + 393
ISBN 0-201-65689-2 (paper)
Focus on Grammar: An Advanced Course for Reference and Practice
Jay Maurer (1995)
Pp. xv + 346
ISBN 0-201-65693-0 (paper)
US $18.50 each
Focus on Grammar presents grammar exercises at four levels, each level being composed of a student book, a cassette, a workbook, a teacher’s manual and a CD-ROM. Each student book is divided into units addressing one of the main grammatical problems of English: simple past tense, modals, comparisons, and so forth. The last unit offers additional exercises on some of the points raised in the volume, in a sort of synthesis. Appendices gather documents (e.g., maps of the world and the United States), tables (e.g., conjugations, structures of comparisons), spelling and pronunciation rules, grammar rules, and lists of irregular and phrasal verbs. An extensive index refers to grammatical terms (e.g., frequency adverb, possessive noun) as well as specific words (e.g., but, less, would).Finally, an answer key gives the solutions to the exercises and makes the books usable for self-study.
The basic format is the same in each unit, and a certain unity of content is achieved as each unit centres around one or more themes suitable to the grammar topic of the unit. The chapters start with a contextualization or awareness phase where the new structures are presented in context in the form of dialogues, newspaper and magazine excerpts, and so forth, both in written and oral form. The aim is to show how the structures are used in everyday situations. This is followed by the formal presentation of the target structure(s) in the form of charts, explanations and examples. The [-1-] bulk of the unit is the production phase, which offers two sorts of exercises: focused or controlled practice first, beginning with easy exercises where the student recognises the structure without having to produce language, and going on to controlled production exercises (fill-in-the-blanks, multiple choice, matching). These are written exercises. Students are then exposed to the structures in listening activities, and finally go on to freer exercises, communication practice in pairs or small groups. The unit ends on a series of exercises that can be used for review or self-test.
The series, as the titles indicate, claims to be both for reference and practice. In addition to the formal grammar explanations and the four-step approach, it also offers constant recycling and revising of the structures already studied all through the books, and proposes activities making use of the four basic skills of listening, speaking, reading and writing.
These claims are largely fulfilled and make the books truly unique, as far as I know. The layout is pleasant, with plenty of space to write but no unnecessary frills. The pen drawings are sober, cartoon-like, and they serve a purpose in the exercises as part of the material on which the practice is based. Each book in the series has a background colour, in the margins and in the charts and titles, which gives them both unity and a sophisticated aspect. Attention is not distracted from the main point and the overall impression is that of solid books. One feels, all the more so as they are bulky books, that when one is finished with a volume progress will have been made, a sense of achievement will have been reached. As the approach of each structure is very gradual, and there is an abundance of varied practice for each structure, I have no doubt that this is the case. It is the first time in many years (since English Grammar in Use, Murphy, 1985, in fact) that I have felt like recommending a grammar book to my own students.
As the exercises involve the four skills, Focus on Grammar may well form the core of a basic language course. But the books are unequal. I found level 1 (basic) far better, more imaginative and more comprehensive than levels 2 and 3. The latter fall back on many of the most common defects of language books: unattractive drawings (the art work is much better in book 1), recordings of written texts (newspaper articles, advertisements) not meant to be read aloud, dull, insipid texts, very traditional exercises. As the level goes up, texts and exercises get longer and longer, but this seems to be the only growing difficulty. Moreover, “Read and Listen” activities do not, in themselves, justify a recording. What I have heard of the recordings (sample cassette) made a favourable impression. The dialogues are lively, well-acted, natural. The accompanying exercises, when available, make full use of the texts.
Each book presents essentially the main stumbling-blocks of English grammar: questions, tenses, modals. Contrastive studies [-2-] (e.g., present perfect vs. simple past, present simple vs. present continuous) are not forgotten, although they could have been given more place. There is little difficulty in doing grammar exercises when we know which tense to use. When there is a choice, as in real-life situations, that is where problems begin and where too often grammar books stop.
Another weakness is that there is page after page of unimaginative, classical exercises of the structural, transformative, or plain fill-in-the blanks kind. Some are too simplistic, merely a copying of structures. It explains, but does not justify, the bulkiness of the books. More is not necessarily better. To make up for that, many simple exercises of transformation involve the students personally, giving them freedom of content in their answers, and many are genuinely communicative activities.
The US-centrism of content, especially in book 1, may irritate. The target audience is obviously foreign students living in the United States, and there is an attempt to introduce them to American history and civilisation. A more varied approach, including other English-speaking countries, would have had a wider world-wide appeal. As it is, the books sound a bit like propaganda in favour of the American way of life.
There are other minor defects which I will point out, without detracting from the overall very favourable impression. In the Basic course, for example, what purpose does finding American states and cities on the map serve? What is there to discuss in the statement “Businessmen are clean”? How useful is an exercise where the student has to unscramble letters to find days, months, and so forth? Some points are not grammatical questions: the difference between and and but or the meaning of some phrasal verbs: this is a problem of vocabulary; only word order with objects poses a structural problem (which is well treated). I am not sure that the past tense of be deserves a whole chapter, especially after a unit on the past tense of the other verbs. I also fail to see why the author opposes don’t to won’t. It seems to me to introduce a problem where there is none. Finally, the difference between may and might is not a “basic” problem and the exercises proposed, where may and might are interchangeable, serve no purpose. These small defects, which are more irrelevancies than mistakes, may well come from a desire to provide an abundance of practice material to choose from.
All these remarks notwithstanding, these are books that any teacher might well want to adopt for classroom use, as there is a wealth of good material to choose from. Also, these are superb books for self-study, offering a gradual approach and all the help necessary; they will delight all learners who feel they need to refine their grammar skills. For self-study, there might be a [-3-] difficulty with the communication activities, but it is up to the learner to find (a) partner(s) to share the learning.
Murphy, R. (1985). English Grammar in Use. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Toulouse 3 University, France
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